NCAA Football

Clancy Pendergast Hired as USC DC: Latest Comments and Reaction

Clancy Pendergast was the defensive coordinator for the USC Trojans in 2013 and will reportedly return to the program in the same role in 2016, according to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports.

Pendergast was an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers in 2015 after he elected to sit out during the 2014 campaign.

Nick Bromberg of Yahoo Sports highlighted the fact USC has made a habit of hiring coaches with past ties to the program in recent years, considering Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian and Clay Helton are the last three permanent head coaches. All were offensive assistants with the team before earning the nod.

Pendergast will replace Justin Wilcox, who was fired in early December after a disastrous showing in the Pac-12 title game.

The Trojans finished a dismal 70th in the nation in yards allowed per game and 57th in scoring defense this season. They had realistic national title aspirations heading into the year, but they ended up a disappointing 8-6 and lost in blowout fashion to Stanford in that conference championship game and to Wisconsin in the Holiday Bowl.

It was apparent how much improvement USC needed on defense during its marquee games of 2015, when it allowed 48 points to Oregon, 41 to Notre Dame and 41 against Stanford on two different occasions.

Feldman described why the Pendergast hire could prove fruitful for the Trojans:

In 2013, he turned the Trojans from a unit that ranked No. 7 in the Pac-12 to No. 1. A few years earlier, he sparked as dramatic a turnaround when he took over Cal's defense and made it the conference's top-rated D. Pendergast gained a rep in coaching circles for having a handle on containing the spread after his 2010 Bears slowed down Chip Kelly's prolific offense, holding them to 40 points below their average. However, when Steve Sarkisian was hired as USC's new coach, he opted to not retain Pendergast.

USC won 10 games with Pendergast in charge of the defense in 2013, which it has only done one other time since the 2008 campaign. 

Max Meyer, digital content producer for the NFL, noted Pendergast’s 5-2 philosophy should fit in well with the talent pool at USC:

Ken Goe of the Oregonian reported earlier Thursday that the Oregon Ducks were interested in bringing Pendergast aboard after they demoted Don Pellum from defensive coordinator to linebacker coach.

Alas, it will be the Trojans who add him in an effort to slow down some of the Pac-12’s high-powered offenses that include stars such as Josh Rosen and Christian McCaffrey and uptempo schemes such as the one at Oregon.

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Clancy Pendergast Hired as USC DC: Latest Comments and Reaction

Clancy Pendergast was the defensive coordinator for the USC Trojans in 2013 and will reportedly return to the program in the same role in 2016, according to Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports...

Read the full article on Bleacher Report...

Breaking Down the 2016 Transfer QB Market in College Football

A national champion hasn't even been crowned yet for the 2015 season, but college football's version of free agency for 2016—the quarterback transfer market—is already in full swing.

As the most important position on the roster, quarterbacks are in high demand each year. And whether it's due to coaching changes or depth-chart issues, the trend of passers on the move continues to grow.

This year's quarterback market started with a frenzy down in the Lone Star State, and pieces continue to fall into place in other areas across the country.

Some schools will gain valuable depth at the position for the future, while others will pick up instant-impact graduate transfers who will be eligible immediately.

Let's recap all the action in the transfer quarterback market so far this offseason and update some situations for those still looking for new schools.

 

Decisions finalized

The epicenter of the early quarterback transfer market was at Texas A&M.

The Aggies' two quarterbacks with starting experience in 2015—former 5-star recruits Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray—both announced their intentions to leave College Station early last month. 

Allen, who took over as Texas A&M's starting quarterback in the second half of his 2014 true-freshman season and was the original 2015 starter, decided to stay in Texas earlier this week. The strong-armed quarterback chose AAC and Peach Bowl champion Houston, where he'll compete for the job left by Greg Ward Jr. in 2017.

"I just have a lot of trust in Coach [Tom] Herman," Allen said, via Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports. "He had recruited me in high school [when Herman was at Ohio State]. I had gotten to know him extremely well. I know he can really help me grow as a man and get to the NFL."

Although Murray decided to transfer after Allen, he chose his new school in less time. The 5'11" speedster, who never lost a single game as a high school starter, signed with Oklahoma before Christmas.

Murray seems like a great fit for Oklahoma offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley's scheme when he becomes eligible to play as a redshirt sophomore in 2017. While he needs to continue to develop his passing accuracy, he was an electrifying rushing threat with the Aggies, averaging 6.32 yards per carry.

The transfers left Texas A&M with only one quarterback on its roster, but the Aggies turned the situation into a virtual "player to be named later" trade with Oklahoma.

Former Sooners starter Trevor Knight decided to transfer to Texas A&M this week, and he will be eligible immediately for the 2016 season.

The experienced Knight lost his starting job to former Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield in 2015 after passing for 2,300 yards, 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 2014. He famously led Oklahoma to a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama at the end of the 2013 season.

Before the Texas A&M quarterback saga was finalized, Dakota Prukop was the top transfer QB story in college football.

Prukop decided to make a move from the FCS ranks after throwing for 3,025 yards, 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions at Montana State. According to Bleacher Report's Ben Kercheval, he may be more dangerous with his legs.

"The ability to extend plays with his arm and his legs not only makes Prukop hard to physically defend in space, but forces opposing defenses to account for him at all times," Kercheval wrote last month.

He visited SEC champion Alabama, who will have a new starting quarterback in 2016, but decided to transfer to Oregon—a school that picked up FCS star Vernon Adams Jr. for the 2015 season. 

Prukop will have huge shoes to fill from Adams, who led the nation in passing efficiency in his one and only season for a warp-speed Oregon offense that struggled in a huge way when he was injured.

But unlike Adams, Prukop will have plenty of time to prepare in Oregon's offense. According to Chantel Jennings of ESPN.com, Prukop is already enrolled in classes in Eugene. Adams didn't arrive at Oregon until late in fall practice last year after some academic drama.

Other transfers who will immediately compete for starting jobs in 2016 include Austin Appleby, who joined a quarterback-hungry Florida team from Purdue.

Boston College picked up former Kentucky starter Patrick Towles, and Georgia's Faton Bauta joined former Bulldogs assistant Mike Bobo at Colorado State.

Will Gardner, who started at Louisville in the 2014 season, stepped down to Division II's West Georgia. Alec Morris will also be on the move from Alabama's crowded quarterback room to Sun Belt school North Texas.

 

Still on the market

While most of the big names on the quarterback transfer market have already been claimed by schools, a few impact passers are still looking for new homes.

Former Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb could become a new starter somewhere in 2016. He threw for 44 touchdowns in his first two seasons at Texas Tech and averaged more than 300 yards per contest in 2014. 

Health woes limited Webb, and Patrick Mahomes took control of the starting quarterback job in the 2015 season. Still, Webb's 6'5" frame and high football IQ should make one school happy for the upcoming campaign.

"He has a chance to be very special," Kingsbury told Feldman in 2013. "He has one of the quickest releases and strongest arms I've been around. Very smart, intellectual thinker. Processes things very quickly. Sees the field. Great at checking to the right place."

There haven't been any reports yet of any schools leading for Webb, although Feldman wrote that SEC and Pac-12 options were the most likely landing spots for him. 

Pittsburgh's Chad Voytik will also be eligible in 2016 after receiving his release from the Panthers earlier this week.

Voytik recorded more than 2,500 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns as Pitt's starting quarterback in 2014. He lost the starting quarterback job to former Tennessee transfer Nathan Peterman this past season, the first for Pitt under new coach Pat Narduzzi.

According to Saralyn Norkus of the Cleveland (Tennessee) Daily Banner, Voytik is considering Arkansas State, Memphis, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee-Chattanooga.

The Tennessee native mentioned Memphis to Norkus because of new coach Jay Norvell, who was the offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh when he signed in 2011.

Elsewhere, Will Grier is looking for a new school.

He broke out as Florida's new quarterback in 2015 and went 6-0 as a starter with 10 touchdowns and just three picks before receiving a one-year suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.

Even without the suspension, Grier would have to sit out one season for his new team due to the NCAA's transfer rules. He will be eligible again for 2017.

Other SEC quarterbacks set to transfer are Ole Miss' DeVante Kincade and Vanderbilt's Johnny McCrary.

Kincade played the last two seasons as a reserve and is considering joining North Texas, according to Brett Vito of the Denton Record-Chronicle. McCrary, who started 12 games at Vanderbilt, can finish his degree this summer and be eligible for the next two seasons at his new school, according to Adam Sparks of the Tennessean.

 

A final possiblity

There's still plenty of time for some more movement in the market, especially with the fluid roster situations across the country.

The biggest rumor right now in that area revolves around BYU senior Taysom Hill.

When he was healthy for the Cougars, Hill was one of the most exciting dual-threat players in the country, racking up more than 4,000 yards of offense in 2013 (he's only been able to play in eight games since).

With Bronco Mendenhall leaving BYU to become the new coach at Virginia and Tanner Mangum breaking out as a freshman starter in 2015, Hill is expected by some to finish his eligibility elsewhere.

According to Dick Harmon of the Deseret News, Mendenhall and his new Virginia staff have reached out to Hill:

Michigan has also been connected with Hill's name since the regular season, and Matt Brown of SB Nation's Vanquish the Foe mentioned Stanford as another possible landing spot for the Cougar quarterback.

Of course, Hill has had three straight season-ending injuries, and his health may prevent him from playing another season in Provo or anywhere else.

Still, if he leaves BYU for the 2016 season, another school could cash in on a veteran talent and send the market spinning once more. 

 

Statistics courtesy of CFBStats.comRecruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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Clemson Granted Release on Practice Limitations for Championship Game vs Alabama

The NCAA granted Clemson a waiver Wednesday that will allow football players to practice more than 20 hours per week in the lead-up to Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship Game.

"We're appreciative of the NCAA working with us in granting this waiver to assist in our preparations for next Monday's game while maintaining our commitment to student-athlete welfare," Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said in a statement Thursday, per ESPN.com.     

He continued, "As Coach [Dabo] Swinney pointed out, this was not going to be a big difference-maker in our team's schedule, but it's great they've reached a solution that prioritizes the well-being of our student-athletes while allowing them to adequately prepare for the national championship."

Because Clemson's spring semester is in session, players would have been subject to more strict practice rules than Alabama, which has not resumed class. The Tigers would have been held to limits of no more than four hours of football-related work per day and 20 hours or less over the course of a week. 

It's worth noting the game itself counts as three hours, meaning coaches realistically have only 17 hours of prep time during the week. This is the second straight season the rule has come into play, as Oregon was left with a 20-hour limit during its prep for its title game matchup with Ohio State.

With the College Football Playoff extending the season by a week, this is something the NCAA needs to address immediately. Giving Clemson a waiver helps the Tigers in the interim, but more than likely we'll be facing a similar situation a year from now. Exempting championship teams from the 20-hour workweek is logical, and yet it also clearly sends a message that academics come second to athletics.

While most would acknowledge that's the case in high-profile college athletics, it's not a message the NCAA wants to send publicly. Clemson players are having to skip classes and coursework to ready themselves for Monday night's game, though it's worth noting the school is only allowing such instances when it receives professor approval, per ESPN.com.

Nevertheless, it creates a strange conflict of interest. The NCAA needs to either set a practice-limit rule for all teams that applies no matter the status of the semester or find a workable middle ground that avoids such situations in the future. 

 

Follow Tyler Conway (@jtylerconway) on Twitter

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How Clemson Compares to Nick Saban's Past Title Game Opponents at Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though this will be his last game with the University of Alabama, national championship games have become familiar for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

This will be his fourth as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator, and thanks to the BCS and College Football Playoffs, all have seen matchups of No. 1 vs. No. 2.

While statistically Alabama is pretty similar to its national title teams of 2009, 2011 and 2012, the opponents have been as different as the venues. Should it defeat Clemson in Arizona on Monday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. CT) it’ll have a clean sweep of what used to be the four BCS title sites, Pasadena, New Orleans and Miami being the others.

“You’ve been in there with LSU, kind of tight, bunched up, running at you; Texas was a little bit spread; then Notre Dame spread it out some,” Smart said.

“These guys are probably the fastest tempo we’ve played in a championship game. So they create a lot of challenges for us because they’ve got a lot of formations, a lot of space plays, a lot of good skill players. So it creates kind of a new dynamic, this situation for us, to be able to stop those guys in what seems like a short week.”

That dynamic, of course, is led by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson, who will be going up against a defense that just pulled off a 38-0 shutout of Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl and has Alabama fans drawing comparisons to the great Crimson Tide defenses of old.

Its place among them can be debated after the national title game, and when it comes to intangibles, some claim Alabama has a big advantage because it’s been there before. All of the seniors who didn’t transfer in were at the BCS game at the end of the 2012 season, and a few were there in 2011 as well.

Nevertheless, Clemson will be the Crimson Tide’s biggest challenge of the four title opponents.

“Looking back, I would say absolutely,” said ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who has been a broadcast analyst for each Alabama championship game.

Of the four, LSU clearly had the best defense and the most overall talent. Combined, the two teams have had 45 players from that game selected in the NFL draft, including 16 of the 22 defensive starters (12 in the first three rounds).

It was a rematch of what had been hailed as “The Game of the Century” and turned out to be just that for fans of defensive football. Neither team was able to reach the end zone, with the Tigers pulling out a hard-fought 9-6 overtime victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

With the loss occurring so late in the season, Alabama needed some big-time help to get another shot at LSU, which was being hailed as maybe having the best team in college football history. But with the defense giving up just 92 total yards, including 39 rushing, the Crimson Tide made five field goals and then finally scored a touchdown for a 21-0 victory.

LSU, which had defeated eight ranked teams en route to the BCS Championship Game, didn't cross midfield until eight minutes remained and finished with only five first downs. In contrast, Alabama had 384 yards of total offense.

Jordan Jefferson was LSU’s quarterback that day, while Texas had Heisman Trophy finalist Colt McCoy (who won the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Davey O’Brien, Johnny Unitas and Manning awards), and Notre Dame was led by Everett Golson.

All three were known for the ability to run as well as pass (McCoy actually had 1,571 career rushing yards), but none of them did so like Watson this season.

The list of college quarterbacks who have passed for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 during a single season is short, and includes Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2012, Texas’ Vince Young in 2005 and Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick in 2010 (along with Dan LeFevour of Central Michigan in 2007 and Chandler Harnish of Northern Illinois in 2011).

Manziel was the only one to pull it off during the regular season. Watson didn’t clear 1,000 rushing yards until the Orange Bowl, but it was his fifth 100-yard game out of the past six. Previously, he didn’t have any.

“I would say he’s unique,” Smart said about comparisons to Manziel, Nick Marshall and Cam Newton. “You could go there, it’s almost like a mixture of the three guys with Nick Marshall as a perimeter runner. Deshaun runs well on the perimeter. Johnny Manziel was a great athlete, create things in space. So does Deshaun Watson. This guy runs more power run game like you would say Cam Newton does. Obviously, he’s not the same stature as Cam, but he runs some of the similar plays that Auburn ran with him.

“So the mixture of those three guys, he takes a little bit from each one.”

Smart, who recruited Watson for Alabama two years ago (“We wanted him. We wanted him bad”), added that the quarterback has the “it” factor that all coaches are looking for and creates an enormous confidence with his teammates.

Consequently, Clemson has the best offense that Alabama’s seen in a championship game, and the last team that moved the ball against this defense was Ole Miss, which runs a very similar system.

Moreover, the Tigers are peaking at the right time and really have nothing to lose. Despite having been ranked No. 1 since early November, they’re playing up the “us against the world” mentality, complete with Dabo Swinney dancing in the locker room and massive pizza parties with fans.

“When you’re 14-0, the confidence that this football team is playing with, that somehow they’re able to maintain a chip on their shoulders, play that disrespect card, and 18-to-23-year-olds, when they all believe it, can become a very powerful thing much like Ohio State did a year ago—Clemson has that on its side right now,” Herbstreit said.

Yes, Alabama has faced undefeated teams in the title game before. It’s been favored in all four games and, like Clemson, is playing its best football at the right time.

But it has yet to win a title in the playoff format and has never played in this desert venue, and Clemson is nothing like the team that it crushed 34-10 in 2008. This will be much more of an endurance test.

“This is going to be a totally different kind of game, too, because these guys average 80-something plays a game,” Saban said. “Michigan State didn't average that many. They weren't a fastball team. The game's going to be long, and the players are going to play more plays. It’s going to be a game where conditioning's going to be at a premium.”

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh. 

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5-Star Isaac Nauta Breaks Down His Finalists, Says He Knows Where He Will Commit

Isaac Nauta finally knows where he's going to play college football.

The country's top-ranked tight end recruit and No. 9 overall prospect reached a decision Wednesday night after weeks of weighing three finalists. Nauta will let everyone know those plans Saturday afternoon when he announces a commitment at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.

"I'm excited to get it off my chest," Nauta told Bleacher Report. "I'm ready to head to school and get this next chapter of my life started."

It's down to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Georgia Bulldogs and Michigan Wolverines for the 6'3", 244-pound prospect. Head coaches Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Jim Harbaugh will apparently wait until his in-game commitment just like the rest of us, as Nauta doesn't plan to contact any coaches until after the national television broadcast.

"The hardest part about it all is I felt comfortable with all three," he said. "I felt I could go to school at all three and be happy. It was really more of a soul-searching thing. Where do I want to be? What do I want to do after football? I broke it down into everything and it was definitely the hardest decision of my life."

Nauta, a senior at Florida powerhouse IMG Academy, also made official visits to the Ole Miss Rebels and Oklahoma State Cowboys during the season. He previously spent eight months committed to the Florida State Seminoles, a verbal pact that began shortly after his junior campaign and lasted until late July.

After years experiencing the peaks and valleys of a high-profile recruitment process, the 5-star prospect is ready to wrap things up Saturday.

"It's a huge mix of emotions. It can be stressful. It can be fun. It can be tiring. It can be annoying. But at the end of the day, you have to realize you have an opportunity that a ton of kids wish they could have," Nauta said.

He traveled to the campuses of all three finalists this fall, setting the stage for a difficult decision. 

The selling point for Alabama under Nick Saban has been simple and consistent for almost a decade—come to Tuscaloosa and win a national title. The Crimson Tide are now one victory away from finishing atop the college football world for a fourth time in seven seasons.

"They always compete for championships and win a lot of games. Alabama also does a great job developing guys for the NFL," Nauta said.

Georgia hopes to have him in Athens as part of an effort to challenge Alabama for SEC supremacy. New head coach Kirby Smart, a longtime Crimson Tide defensive coordinator, made Nauta an immediate priority.

He was long the focus of Mark Richt's regime. Nauta stongly considered Georgia before his initial pledge to Florida State and grew up in the Peach State, playing at Buford High School until last year.

"It's close to home and there's always a chance to win the SEC East with all the talent around the area," he said. "I have a good relationship with Kirby Smart."

The Bulldogs hope to bag several homegrown athletes during these final weeks before national signing day. A commitment from Nauta could represent a major shift in momentum that sends Georgia surging toward a top-five class in this recruiting cycle.

Smart and his staff secured a key recruiting victory last month by maintaining a commitment from 5-star quarterback Jacob Eason, who flirted with a possible flip to the Florida Gators following Richt's departure. Nauta has been impressed by his potential teammate throughout All-American action this week.

"I've seen Eason out here slinging it. He's playing really well in practice," Nauta said.

Michigan 4-star quarterback commit Brandon Peters is also in attendance. The Wolverines would love to pair him with Nauta in Ann Arbor for years to come.

Head coach Jim Harbaugh is a proven fan of tight ends, evidenced by the production at the position during previous tenures with the Stanford Cardinal and San Francisco 49ers. Michigan tight end Jake Butt finished second on the Wolverines this season with 51 receptions, emerging as a potential top-tier NFL target in the 2017 draft.

"Coach Harbaugh's system is a true pro system that gets you prepared for the NFL. He uses the tight end very well," Nauta said.

He also noted the presence of multiple family members near Michigan, which could help create a comfortable situation that far from home.

Georgia is considered a strong favorite entering Saturday's announcement ceremony. The Bulldogs claim 84 percent of experts' commitment predictions in his 247Sports Crystal Ball.

Whichever school ultimately secures Nauta's pledge, the wait for his arrival will be brief. He plans to enroll early this month, providing him with a jumpstart toward an immediate role next fall.

"I want to get with coaches every day and learn the offense so by the time spring ball rolls around I'll be ready to go. I want to play right away as a freshman," Nauta said.

 

Quotes obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report National Recruiting Analyst Tyler Donohue. All player ratings are courtesy of 247Sports' composite ratings. Follow Tyler via Twitter: @TDsTake. 

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Best 2016 NFL Draft Eligible Prospects to Watch for the National Title Game

Chances are, if you’re an NFL scout, the center of your world the past few weeks has been in Glendale, Arizona.

Last week’s Fiesta Bowl between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Ohio State Buckeyes featured as many as eight potential first-round draft picks, and the upcoming national title game between the undefeated Clemson Tigers and Vegas-favorite Alabama Crimson Tide could bump that number up into the 20s.

Not bad for one stadium over an 11-day span.

Of course, of those two games, one means significantly more than the other. And while hoisting the College Football Playoff trophy is no doubt at the forefront of the minds of the Tigers and Tide, there are a number of players who will quickly have to decide whether to turn pro and declare for the NFL Draft or to remain in school.

With that in mind, here are a few draft-eligible players who will have one last chance to shine for scouts at the national title game and could possibly wind up as future stars in the NFL.


Alabama

LB Reggie Ragland

The SEC Defensive Player of the Year has blossomed from top recruit to one of the best linebackers head coach Nick Saban has ever had during his four years at Alabama. Whether it’s tracking down ball-carriers from sideline to sideline or dropping in pass coverage, there’s very little Ragland can’t do from his interior position. He appears flexible enough to be both a middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme at the next level as well as an inside linebacker in a 3-4.

Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller ranks him as the No. 16 player in the 2016 draft class in his initial Top 300 ranking, but it would surprise nobody if he winds up creeping upward on the list by the time the predraft process is over. If you’re looking to show young players how to play linebacker in college, putting on film of Ragland is a good place to start. In his post-regular season mock draft, Miller slotted Ragland to the Kansas City Chiefs with the No. 24 overall pick.

DL Jarran Reed

Reed was among a number of Alabama players who considered leaving for the NFL after last season but returned to Tuscaloosa for another year, a move that appears to have paid off in a big way. His size (6'4'', 313 pounds) is readily apparent and he could play a number of different positions in the pros, from defensive end in a 3-4 to defensive tackle in a 4-3. Miller ranks him as the No. 18 prospect in the draft this season and included him in the first round of his latest mock draft—to the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 21 overall.

DL A’Shawn Robinson

Robinson might be the most well-known player on the Alabama defense, thanks mostly to his appearance and ability to look 40 going on 20. But beyond the beard and outward presentation lies a terrific defensive lineman who can make life hell for opposing offensive linemen each and every game. Few convert power as well as Robinson and he works his hands better than most realize.

Miller slotted him in at No. 22 in his Top 300 prospect list and mocked him as a first-round pick. It’s a very deep year at defensive tackle in the draft and Robinson has a chance to be one of the best, assuming the junior does what everybody expects and declares for the draft after the title game.

DL Jonathan Allen

Yet another underclassmen who is already appearing on draft boards based on what he did this season, Allen is just as highly regarded as his interior teammate Robinson—if not more. Despite his 6'3'', 275-pound frame, he plays bigger than that on tape and can do everything from setting the edge to making offensive tackles whiff as he runs by them on the way to the quarterback. He’s ranked No. 23 in Miller’s Top 300 for a reason and is yet another potential first-rounder when the draft rolls around.

OL Ryan Kelly

There is not a better center in the country and most Alabama fans can immediately tell you just how much Kelly means to the offense following a remarkable 2015 campaign. In addition to being the anchor of the line and making all the protection calls, the smart and steady player is equally adept at run and pass blocking (no sacks allowed, according to the school).

At this point, it would be a surprise if any center is picked ahead of him in the draft and his size (6'4'', 297 pounds) should allow him to play guard at the next level as well. Although interior linemen rarely get ranked highly at this point in the year, Miller considers Kelly a top-75 prospect.

TE O.J. Howard

Another underclassmen who could leave, there is little question that Howard has the skill set to thrive in the NFL more than he has at Alabama. His speed and athleticism immediately catch your eye when you see him in warm-ups or during the rare time that he catches a pass. At 6'6'', 242 pounds, he has great size to be a receiving tight end for a wide-open offense and a major threat to score after the catch in the pros. Plus, you just know he’ll shoot up draft boards after attending the NFL Scouting Combine.

RB Derrick Henry

The Heisman Trophy winner seems all but a lock to declare early and enter the draft, but he might be one of the most divisive prospects available for NFL teams to pick apart when the time comes. Certainly his incredible season in 2015 jumps out, but the fact is there simply are not that many 6'3'', 242-pound running backs who are racking up carries.

Miller ranks Henry as the No. 74 prospect in the country but when you factor in the depressed value of tailbacks in the draft, predicting where he actually lands is all over the map. Still, Henry has been amazing on the field for the Tide in carrying them to the title game.

DB Eddie Jackson

A starter since his freshman year and an All-SEC First Team selection this season, Jackson is one of the best defensive backs in the country and has made the most of his move to safety in 2015. His ability to play a number of spots in addition to being a cover safety will enhance his value during draft time if he comes out. It’s possible he returns to school but if Jackson does come out, Miller ranks him right in the middle of his Top 300 list.

RB Kenyan Drake

Often overshadowed by the primary running back for the Tide, Drake has been the do-it-all runner that has contributed in every facet of the offense at Alabama. He won’t be an early-round pick by any stretch of the imagination—a tough injury history will hurt him in the eyes of scouts—but he has a chance of becoming a solid contributor who sees snaps at a number of different positions in addition to being a stud special teams player.

DB Cyrus Jones

A converted receiver, Jones brings plenty of speed to the table and the ability to track the ball better than just about every other defensive back. His return ability alone will make him a coveted mid-to-late round pick. Miller has him slotted in the top 200 of his rankings and there’s a chance that Jones could shoot up even more with a good national title performance and top testing numbers at the combine.

QB Jake Coker

Florida State Seminoles head coach Jimbo Fisher was not shy in saying he thought Coker would be a high draft pick by the time his Alabama career wrapped up after transferring over from Florida State. That likely won’t be the case this spring, but given the number of lackluster pro-style quarterback options this year, there’s still a good chance Coker gets drafted somewhere based on his strong arm and wealth of experience. Miller includes him in his top 300 (No. 244 to be exact), and let’s face it: If Lane Kiffin can turn Jonathan Crompton into a fifth-round pick, the same can probably said for the Tide offensive coordinator’s work with Coker this season.

DL Darren Lake

Lake doesn’t have the numbers of some of his peers, but there is some potential in the 6'3'', 315-pounder. A big combine performance and a strong showing at Alabama’s Senior Day could allow his name to be called in the draft.

LB Tim Williams

Williams said he will return to school for his senior season, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook him when the title game rolls around. Though he’s not on the field every snap, Williams has been a terror off the edge for the Tide and has, at times, been the most disruptive pass-rusher for defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s defense. He’ll head into 2016 with high expectations from the scouting community based on what he flashed this year.

LB Ryan Anderson

Anderson was a key part in shutting out Michigan State in the team’s semifinal game, a familiar scene for the Alabama defense considering how integral the outside linebacker has been in getting to the quarterback. He has six sacks on the season and has great size (6'2'', 249 pounds) to be a factor at the next level. Off-the-field concerns may dampen teams’ enthusiasm for him, however.

Clemson

DB Mackenzie Alexander

A redshirt sophomore, the Tigers’ top cornerback has been leaning toward entering the draft after the title game and it’s not hard to see why when you pop on the film and see him blanketing opposing receivers. On top of the speed needed to get downfield, Alexander is very fluid when it comes to coverage and he’s a big reason why Clemson sports a top-10 pass defense. Miller considers Alexander to be a top-10 prospect in this year’s draft and actually slotted him to the Baltimore Ravens with the No. 6 pick in his latest mock draft, over Florida State star Jalen Ramsey.

DL Shaq Lawson

Lawson wasn’t much of a factor in Clemson’s big semifinal win over Oklahoma following a knee injury, but make no mistake, he’s one of the best defenders in the country after an incredible 2015 season. Miller regards Lawson as the No. 14 prospect and a first-rounder after being named a first-team All-American and leading the nation in tackles for loss.

S Jayron Kearse

The nephew of former NFL defensive end Jevon "The Freak" Kearse, the Tigers safety is an incredible athlete in his own right. At 6'5'', 220 pounds, he’s a big presence in the middle of the field and delivers some punishing hits to wideouts who dare challenge him. He could go in the first two rounds of the draft and is considered by Miller to be a top-50 prospect.

TE Jordan Leggett

The Mackey Award finalist may be quarterback Deshaun Watson’s best friend against the attacking Alabama defense Monday. While the Clemson receiving corps has thinned out over the course of the season, Leggett has remained a consistent threat to make a big play in the Tigers offense. He could be one of the first tight ends taken in the draft this spring as a matchup nightmare at any level of football.

OL Eric Mac Lain

All Mac Lain did in his first season as a starter was keep Watson upright in the backfield and be named a first-team All-ACC player. Interior offensive linemen can get valued differently, but it's safe to say that some team could get a good one in Mac Lain.

DL D.J. Reader

The ever-talkative Lawson gets all the press on the team’s defensive line, but Reader is a very good player in his own right. It’s a deep year for defensive tackles, which might hurt his value when it comes to the draft itself, but he’s a big presence in the middle who has shown that he can get penetration into the backfield against any offensive double-team.

LB Travis Blanks

Blanks came to Clemson as a safety but has bulked up to play a solid role as a hybrid linebacker for the Tigers. He’s started the majority of games this season, put up decent numbers and appears to be ready to move on to the next level after dealing with several serious injuries during the course of his college career.

Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @BryanDFischer.

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Which College Football Playoff Participant Is Most Likely to Be Back Next Year?

The College Football Playoff system is still relatively new, but one thing we've already come to expect each year is a repeat participant.

Alabama has played in both playoffs so far, losing to eventual champion Ohio State in last year's semifinals in 2014 before earning a spot in the title game this time around. The Crimson Tide did this despite having to replace more than half their starters, much like Florida State did in going from the final BCS champion to one of the first playoff teams.

If this limited amount of history tells us anything, it's that one of the four teams that was in contention for the 2015 national title is going to be in the hunt again next season. But which team will it be?

Based on expected losses, projected returners and the paths they have to take in 2016, the smart money is on Clemson to be the repeat participant next time around.

Follow along as we go into more detail explaining this choice, as well as why the other three playoff entrants are less likely to make it through.

 

Holes to fill

As many as 15 of Alabama's key contributors will be gone after Monday, assuming the quartet of running back Derrick Henry, tight end O.J. Howard and defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and A'Shawn Robinson declare for the draft. The Crimson Tide are used to mass departures, and their depth is among the best around, though having to replace a Heisman-winning quarterback and the majority of what Bleacher Report's Adam Kramer calls "college football’s deepest, most freakish and scariest collection of human beings" on the D-line aren't run-of-the-mill tasks.

Michigan State might be in the most dire situation of the playoff teams in terms of losses. Several of the Spartans' top performers in 2015 were players who opted to return to school for their senior year rather than turn pro, such as quarterback Connor Cook and defensive end Shilique Calhoun, and they proved integral to the Big Ten title and semifinal bid.

Oklahoma loses its best wide receiver in Sterling Shepard, who caught nearly as many passes as the Sooners' next two best targets, though their offense otherwise returns nearly intact. That's important, since Oklahoma's defense is losing almost every impact player.

And in a league like the Big 12, where scoring 30 points per game was below-average, having impact defenders is necessary to survive the gauntlet.

Based on sheer numbers, Clemson should have a decided advantage in the returning starters department over the other three playoff teams. Even with the likely departure of three juniors (safety Jordan Kearse, tight end Jordan Leggett and defensive end Kevin Dodd) and redshirt sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander, the returning pieces are more than good enough to carry the load.

Of the Tigers' holes, the most significant will come on defense. Edge-rusher Shaq Lawson has already declared for the NFL draft, and the four players listed above figure to do so not long after Monday's title game. Throw in graduating seniors at defensive tackle (D.J. Reader) and linebacker (B.J. Goodson), and they'll have to do some tinkering with that unit.

But that's why Clemson pays defensive coordinator Brent Venables more than $1.4 million, according to USA Today's assistant coach salary database.

 

Questions to answer

There's far more to maintaining success than just plugging holes. They have to be filled by the right players, ones that fit alongside the returning pieces and can work together in a similar fashion, or else changes need to be made to the system to get the right mix.

Alabama's most pressing offseason question figures to be about its quarterback position, which for the fourth year in a row will be held by a different player. Gone are the days of having two- and three-year starters like Greg McElroy and AJ McCarron, as the Tide's last two primary QBs were in their first year in such a role.

Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has worked wonders with these new starters, turning Blake Sims into a record-setter and then developing Jake Coker into just what the 2015 Tide needed, but now there will be another competition that, based on recent history, won't get settled until August.

Michigan State might want to study how Alabama handled itself at quarterback after McCarron moved on, since it's what the Spartans face this offseason. Connor Cook was the winningest quarterback in school history, and though MSU managed to win at Ohio State when he was hurt, that doesn't ensure things will go smoothly in 2016.

Matt Charboneau of the Detroit Newsbroke down the impending quarterback competition, MSU's first since Cook beat out Andrew Maxwell in 2013:

This (quarterback competition) will be intriguing and will almost certainly have its roots in winter conditioning, run through spring practice and go into preseason camp. Tyler O’Connor will likely be the early favorite, a fifth-year senior to be that has the knowledge of the offense no other quarterback does. He’ll be pushed by Damion Terry, who will be a junior, and redshirt freshman Brian Lewerke. True freshman Messiah deWeaver is also sure to grab his share of headlines.

Clemson has to hope it can plug and play a series of new starters on defense and keep that unit performing at the same level. There are signs this is possible, as freshmen Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins have looked great when stepping in on the line, though the secondary will have some question marks heading into the 2016 season.

That's the same situation Oklahoma is finding itself in for next season, hoping that the improvement shown on defense can continue despite major contributors moving on. However, the Sooners' biggest issue could be their offensive line, which in many ways kept their offense from being even better in 2015.

Quarterback Baker Mayfield was sacked 39 times, and now he's losing his two best blockers, including center Ty Darlington. As much as Mayfield was able to make something out of nothing, Oklahoma's Air Raid attack would have been far more effective had he been able to sit in a pocket a little longer.

 

2016 schedule

In analyzing the upcoming schedules for the playoff teams, it's clear that Clemson has the easiest path to return to the semifinals. The Tigers only face five teams that made bowl games in 2015, the benefit of being on what's suddenly become the weaker side of the ACC, and only two of their five road games will be against winning teams from a year ago.

That starts with an opener at Auburn and also includes a trip to Florida State, though when that game will be held is to be determined, as the ACC has yet to release its 2016 schedule. Clemson's toughest home game will be against Louisville, a fast-riser at the end of this past season, and beyond that it looks like a very manageable schedule.

But that also means the Tigers could have the least room for error. It might take another perfect record for them to return to the playoffs because of the lack of quality opponents, at least based on how they fared in 2015.

For the rest of this year's playoff participants, the upcoming schedules are strong enough to where each could withstand a loss—depending on when and to whom—and still make it back. Though, each will be hard-pressed to get through those slates with just one setback.

With the Big Ten moving to a nine-game schedule in 2016, the additional crossover game adds meat to Michigan State's lineup. In addition to the Big Ten foes it will face from the East Division (including Michigan and Ohio State at home), it will host both Northwestern and Wisconsin. The Spartans' toughest conference road game should be the regular-season finale at Penn State, as their other trips are to Illinois, Indiana and Maryland.

They also visit Notre Dame in mid-September, the start of 11 straight games after being handed an unfavorable Week 2 bye.

For Alabama, it's the same old story in terms of competition. The SEC won a record eight bowl games in 2015-16, and six of those bowl winners are on the Crimson Tide's schedule, with four (Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss and Tennessee) on the road. The Tide also have their nearly annual neutral-site clash to start 2016, this one against USC in Arlington, Texas, followed by a home opener against a Western Kentucky team that won 12 games a year ago.

Schedule of strength will never be a problem for Alabama but at the same time, that also makes it hard to project it as a certain playoff team because of the quality of the opponents it will face.

But the Tide won't have the toughest schedule among this year's playoff teams. That distinction belongs to Oklahoma, which, in addition to the full slate of Big 12 games, has a loaded nonconference portion.

The Sooners open against Houston, which went 13-1 and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl, in NRG Stadium in Houston. Two weeks later, they host Ohio State, followed by a bye and then the Big 12 opener at TCU. A week later is the annual clash with Texas in Dallas, and there are also trips to Texas Tech and West Virginia, as well as November visits from Baylor and Oklahoma State.

 

Final thoughts

If one team had to be chosen from this year's playoff entrants, Clemson is your best bet. But as Ohio State showed us, there's no such thing as a stone-cold lock.

The Buckeyes brought back so much talent from their national championship team and faced such an unimposing schedule in 2015 that it was hard to imagine a scenario where they wouldn't get to defend that title in the semifinals. The only thing that could stop Ohio State's return to the playoffs was the team itself, which is exactly what ended up happening.

On paper, Clemson is in the best position to make a return trip to the playoffs. Thankfully, though, bids aren't awarded based on expectations, projections and hypotheticals.

 

Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.

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Noel Mazzone a Perfect Fit as Texas A&M's Offensive Coordinator

The final pieces of the puzzle are coming together for the Texas A&M Aggies, and one is coming over from the west coast.

According to Billy Liucci of TexAgs.com, UCLA Bruins offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone has been tabbed to take over as the offensive coordinator of the Aggies, replacing recently dismissed coordinator Jake Spavital.

Mazzone is no stranger to the SEC. 

He served as the offensive coordinator on Tommy Tuberville's staffs at Ole Miss (1995-1998) and Auburn (1999-2001), and he returned to the Rebels in 2005 for a season before moving on to the New York Jets for three seasons as their wide receivers coach.

He has an old-school flavor thanks to his time in the SEC, but he developed a new-school twist over the last half-decade with stops at Arizona State and UCLA. In fact, you can even purchase the specifics of Mazzone's system through his website.

Mazzone is a perfect hire for the Aggies.

Instead of making wholesale changes, A&M will undergo a minor tweak with Mazzone.

He ran an offense almost exclusively out of the spread at UCLA, but the Bruins finished in the top five in rushing in the Pac-12 in three of his four seasons in Westwood. What does Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin need out of his offense? The ability to run when he wants to and needs to.

The Aggies averaged just 4.35 yards per rush on the ground in 2015, and that number dropped to just 3.82 yards per carry against Power Five opponents. UCLA averaged 5.03 yards per rush in 2015 and only dropped to 4.61 against Power Five opponents.

That speaks to the toughness Mazzone preaches, which is something A&M sorely lacked under Spavital.

Yes, he will utilize bubble screens—a common complaint among UCLA fans (and Texas A&M fans, for that matter)—but is more interested in stressing a defense's weaknesses with run/pass options, creating favorable matchups with pre-snap motions and using inside zone and trap concepts in the running game.

Ralph Russo of the Associated Press noted the respect Mazzone demands within the coaching fraternity:

He took a true freshman passer in Josh Rosen and tossed him into the fire on a team that had conference title aspirations. While the Bruins didn't reach their team goal, Rosen did complete 60 percent of his passes (292-of-487) for 3,669 yards, 23 touchdowns and 11 picks. 

Rosen threw two interceptions vs. the Stanford Cardinals on Oct. 15, but he didn't throw a pick over his next 246 attempts—a school record that came to an end vs. the USC Trojans on Nov. 28. 

Think about that for a second—Mazzone's true freshman quarterback who hadn't even been on campus for a full year got better as the season went on. That's the polar opposite of life for Sumlin, who has seen quarterbacks regress in October in each of the last two seasons.

The identity Sumlin established when he got to College Station will stay intact with Mazzone, but an increased dedication to the run, the simplicity in which Mazzone operates and his proven track record of developing quarterbacks make him a perfect fit for the Aggies.

Mazzone is not there to reinvent the wheel; he's there to make a few key tweaks.

He can do just that.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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Bleacher Report's Expert Picks for National Championship Game

The College Football Playoff national championship is quickly approaching. The game college football fans have waited months for will be here before you know it. 

Throughout the week, Bleacher Report's lead writers have dissected the game between the No. 1 Clemson Tigers and No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide in every way possible. Now, with days remaining before kickoff, it's time for our experts to go on the record and make their picks.

Below are the selections for the game's winner, offensive MVP and defensive MVP as made by Michael Felder, Barrett Sallee, Adam Kramer, Ben Kercheval and Greg Couch. Each lead writer also gave his bold prediction for the game.

The vote is split, 3-2, in favor of Alabama, which would give head coach Nick Saban his fourth national championship with the Crimson Tide. However, Felder and Couch believe Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney will get his first national championship with a defining win over the Tide. 

According to OddsShark.com, Alabama is a seven-point favorite over the Tigers after opening up as a 5.5-point favorite.

The individual honors were also split. Heisman winner Derrick Henry, Alabama's star running back, received a pair of MVP votes while Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson received two more. On defense, Tide defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson received two MVP votes.

Our lead writers have made their opinions known. Now it's time to hear what you have to say. How do our expert picks align with your thoughts on the national championship game? Make your voice heard in the comments section below. The game can be viewed on Monday, January 11 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. 

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Breaking Down National Championship Matchups Position by Position

If the College Football Playoff is all about matchups, then the semifinals turned out to be the worst pairings imaginable. Can the national championship game between the No. 1 Clemson Tigers and No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide on Jan. 11 provide a more even game?

We're going position by position to see which team has the edge on the field. At the end, we'll tally the scores and see which team, on paper, has the better chance of winning. Keep in mind this is not a prediction for the outcome. 

Each position group is dissected by its starters, relevant stats, any postseason awards won and, in some cases, how it lines up against its appropriate, opposing position—i.e. cornerback vs. wide receiver.

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Alabama vs. Clemson: Storylines to Watch in 2016 CFP National Championship

A national title game can sell itself, but the upcoming battle between Alabama and Clemson on Monday will be especially exciting as a new champion is crowned.

Clemson is somehow still underrated despite being the undefeated No. 1 team in the country. The Tigers were underdogs against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and now enter this game as 6.5-point underdogs, per Odds Shark. Even with this lack of respect, they should provide a great challenge to No. 2 Alabama, winners of 11 straight games.

This close matchup will be decided by a few key areas that will shift the momentum from one side to the other. Each team has tons of ability, but here are the top storylines fans should watch for throughout the night.

 

 

Top Storylines

Is Derrick Henry Unstoppable?

The toughest task in college football this season has been slowing down Derrick Henry. The Heisman Trophy winner currently has 2,061 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns, at times carrying Alabama's offense.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney discussed the importance of stopping the run, per Dan Hope of the Independent Mail:

This is of course easier said than done. At 6'3", 242 pounds, Henry is a monster with the ball in his hands and difficult to bring down. He also is capable of handling a heavy workload and wearing down opponents by the end of games.

Although he was relatively limited against Michigan State (20 carries for 75 yards), he still had two touchdowns and wasn't needed toward the end of the game. He had a much bigger role in the two previous games, where he combined for 90 carries and 460 rushing yards.

Clemson hasn't faced anyone of his caliber this season, but the squad has done well against its top competition. Oklahoma's Samaje Perine and North Carolina's Elijah Hood were limited over the last two games. Dalvin Cook of Florida State put up big numbers, but much of it was due to an early 75-yard touchdown run.

The Tigers do have talented players on the defensive line, and linebacker B.J. Goodson can make stops all over the field. But they better come prepared to slow down Henry, or else this game will be over before they know it. 

 

Can Clemson Handle Alabama's Defensive Line?

Deshaun Watson was arguably the best quarterback in college football this season, and he and Wayne Gallman make a formidable attack through the air and on the ground. The problem is it isn't easy for anyone to beat Alabama up front.

The Crimson Tide are loaded with talent along the defensive line, starting with A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed, two guys who don't put up big numbers but close any running lanes available. A deep rotation of players also keeps everyone fresh to ensure nothing is easy for opponents throughout the game.

Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports noted the job this unit did against Michigan State's offensive line in the Cotton Bowl:

Even All-Americans Jack Conklin and Jack Allen struggled against this group, leaving Michigan State with just 1.1 yards per carry while quarterback Connor Cook remained under pressure all night long.

Watson's mobility will help avoid some of the pass rush, but he still won't have a whole lot of time to let things develop down the field. He and Gallman could also struggle to run the ball in this one against the No. 1 rushing defense in the country.

Clemson's offensive line will be under a lot of pressure in this game, and its success or failure could help decide the outcome. 

 

Will Turnovers Play a Big Role?

Even with an undefeated season, Clemson has gotten away with some sloppy games this year. The Tigers actually have a negative turnover ratio in 14 games with 25 turnovers forced and 26 giveaways.

Only 11 teams in college football turned the ball over more often than Clemson. Watson himself has 12 interceptions on the year, including five in the last five games.

Quarterback Jake Coker and the rest of Alabama have done a better job taking care of the football in recent months, although turnovers were a major story in the team's only loss this season. The Tide turned the ball over five times against Ole Miss in a wild September game.

No matter how good of a team you have, a minus-five turnover margin isn't going to win too many games.

In a competitive battle like this one, one or two mistakes could be the difference between winning and losing. The squad that does a better job of controlling the football will have a major edge, so both teams better be careful.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for more year-round sports analysis. 

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